Touring China I: Nanjing

7-9 September 2018

Lodging: Hilton Nanjing Riverside

Friday

Given that my classes ended at 10:30 AM, I thought it would be easy to use my Chinese “in the wild” as well as travel. As soon as my passport was returned from the local police registration process, I decided to book a trip to Nanjing that weekend.

Nanjing is a fascinating spot for those interested in Chinese history.  The name means “Southern Capital” (take a guess at Beijing’s meaning), and it has served as a capital for Chiang Kai-Shek, the Taiping rebels, the early Ming dynasty, and others dating back to the state of Wu during the Three Kingdoms period. To a Westerner, it will likely be best known as the site of the Rape of Nanjing (or Nanking). Given how often this city has emerged in my studies and reading for pleasure, it was an obvious personal first choice.

Despite only booking a few days in advance, I was able to find direct flights on China Eastern for approximately $80 each way, inclusive of checked baggage and some catering. Not too shabby for a 2 hour flight, I’d say. Why not cash in on my diamond status as well?  I elected to stay at the Hilton Nanjing Riverside.  It enjoys a better reputation than the Hilton Nanjing, was cheaper, and is in an interesting location. The hotel enjoys a view of the confluence of three rivers, one of which is the Yangtze. The only “downside” was the need to hire a cab (CNY20/US$3) to access the nearby sites/metro system.

And off I went!

After an unremarkable DiDi to Kunming airport, I breezed through check-in and security processes. The China Eastern self-checkin kiosks are a godsend for one travelling without checked baggage.  I obtained my passport and went through the security check in minutes.

The main concourse includes a bit of food and LOTS of gift shopping. Uninterested in the offerings, I used my priority pass to gain entry to one of the myriad Chinese lounges. In Chinese domestic flying, one tends to see a numerous lounges with the name “first class.” Before you get any ideas, these are basically quiet-ish rooms with a minimum of catering. Think some soft drinks, coffee/tea, cup noodles, and cookies.  A better-stocked version might have school cafeteria-grade hot food and warm-ish beer cans. The priority pass option was indeed the former.

The flight itself was non-eventful. A crew member spoke English, the economy seat was inoffensive, and an edible chicken-over-rice dish was served.  Interestingly, the crew made a follow-up beverage run after the meal for anyone wanting more to drink.  I am definitely not in America anymore, Toto.

At the airport, I had reserved a Didi to meet me, which bypassed a long queue at 4:45 PM.  After a 75 minute drive (CNY150), we were at the hotel. I even ticked off a site on the drive in.  In 1865, Li Hongzhang, an éminence grise of Qing dynasty reformers, built an arsenal in Nanjing  to accommodate the Chinese military’s need for modern weapons.  Today, “1865” is a development for tech start-ups, various creatives, and trendy bars & restaurants. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time/energy to come for a drink.

At the Hilton, the front desk clerk checked me in efficiently, and I was given a large exec King room.  I dropped off my backpack and went straight to the lounge.  From the selections, I decided that a vodka & grapefruit was in order for the warm evening. The Stolichnaya was available on a help-yourself basis, and the grapefruit juice was passable.

Saturday

This was going to be a busy day. I took my breakfast in the exec lounge. A variety of Western and Chinese options as well as an egg station made for a very satisfying breakfast. I opted for tea rather than coffee, as this hotel uses a machine which produces a mediocre brew. I enjoyed a view over the Yangtze and made a second cup of tea. There was no real reason for me to enter the fray of the Chinese urban rush hour.

At around a quarter past nine, I booked a Didi to take me to the first attraction: the Nanjing Massacre Museum.

After a quick taxi drive, I alighted at the front entrance.

Before I go further, I should add some commentary on the museum. It documents the sack of Nanjing and the subsequent massacre of inhabitants by the Japanese army in 1937.  Today, the event holds particular symbolic value for the Chinese government and is a subject of great controversy in Japanese historical and diplomatic discourse. While I’d like to share this with you, I don’t want to re-write my MA thesis here. The event itself featured the privations of siege warfare, the horrors of 20th century modern warfare, and the gruesome “manual” massacre of civilians by small arms fire, bayonet, and sword stroke – often featuring gratuitous and “creative” sexual violence.

Given enormous propaganda/patriotic value to the Chinese government during a “crucible” era of modern Chinese history, it’s easy to see why no expense was spared at any stage. The museum is enormous in size and extensive in its collection. The multilingual translations are of high quality. The expertly executed design efficiently moves masses of people. Entry is free to one and all.

The first hall “set up” the war in terms of laying out resources available to both China and Japan in terms of men, planes, industrial production, tanks, artillery, etc.  This part however notably didn’t feature an English translation.  I got the jist from the pictures and what I remembered from research. Basically, Japan would have had near-immediate air superiority and an enormous advantage in everything but raw population size.  Other parts translated for foreigners related the start of hostilities from the Mukden incident onward.

The creation of an international safe zone by the remaining foreigners (most praised were Johan Rabe of Germany and Minnie Vautrin, an American).  The exhibits covered their efforts to designate an area safe from bombing/fighting as the Chinese (Nationalist) resistance crumbled by the day. This continued into the occupation.

As one works their way through the exhibit to when the occupation began, the museum’s quality turns from a historical exposition to something that most resembles a holocaust museum: a narrative of human suffering, mass sexual violence, and slaughter that defy the imagination of those who haven’t witnessed war first-hand.  Then, you are in a tomb. The skeletal remains with the ravages of war are present. Bullet holes in the skull and sword strokes/bayonet cuts in the pelvis are visible.

Eventually, I had enough of war and decided that I needed to see more of the city.  I hopped on the subway and went towards the Ming Ancient Palace (Ming gugong). It’s an obvious predecessor to the Forbidden City in Beijing.  I wandered the grounds, went up onto the gate/wall, and found a kitten in the park.  Today, the former home of the early Ming emperors has become a park where local people come to relax.

After a quick visit here, I wandered east to look at the remaining city walls. These formidable fortifications appeared problematic for a would-be besieger. Nanjing’s defenses were pivotal in the Taiping Rebellion, though they proved little more than a speed bump by the sacking of Nanjing in 1937 by the Japanese Imperial Army. I thought of the stories they could tell as I walked along the ramparts, now turned into a park.

To round out my visit, I headed back west (toward the hotel, incidentally) to visit Chiang Kai Shek’s former presidential palace.  The immediate neighborhood is quite gentrified with a variety of cafes, bars, and chic restaurants.  The presidential palace itself is quite inaccessible to anyone who cannot read Mandarin. I was able to get the highlights from the pictures, my knowledge of the late Qing, and Pleco-searching names.  In short: Taiping rebellion, Opium War, Century of Humiliation, drugs are bad, mmmkay?

By this point, I had been on my feet for several hours, and my brain was quite tired (mostly due to the Nanjing Massacre Museum).  I headed back to the hotel to spend some time at the facilities.  I ended up chatting with some of the swimmers in the lap pool.  They were local Nanjing people who used the Hilton’s fitness facilities. Given the unpredictable quality of Chinese gyms and pools I observed over my time in China, I can see why affluent Chinese would opt to buy memberships from international chain hotels.

Sunday

This was a take-it-easy day. I went for a long run on the treadmill and did some laps in the pool before meandering back to the club lounge to take care of some stuff online.

I left the Hilton in the early afternoon to catch my flight back to Kunming. I didn’t bother using a priority pass lounge in Nanjing, as I didn’t have much time at the airport anyway. Check-in was efficient, as usual. The flight was non-descript. I was offered a noodle dish and a cup of tea, which, again, is more than I’d get in the US.